The Teapot Dome scandal: When democracy worked to hold the fat cats accountable

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American Political Scandal, author, producer and Emmy winner Nathan Masters explores the remarkable time in American history. Photo courtesy of Nathan Masters.

Over 100 years ago, the United States had corrupt politicians who could actually be prosecuted  for their crimes in gaming the economy.  As mythical as it may seem, the history of a small band of radical and gutsy senators who were willing to put it all on the line for justice can serve as inspiration for those who have only ever seen their political representatives bought and paid for. In Crooked: The Roaring '20s Tale of a Corrupt Attorney General, a Crusading Senator, and the Birth of the American Political Scandal, author, producer and Emmy winner Nathan Masters explores the remarkable time in American history.

Masters joins host Robert Scheer in this week’s episode of Scheer Intelligence to dive further into the fundamental aspects of the book, highlighting the disparity in politics now compared to a century ago. Before Watergate, the Teapot Dome scandal involving all the same elements of modern day corruption—big oil, bribery and a complicit presidential administration—set the stage for just how muddy the waters can get in Washington. Because of the level of spectacle the persecution of this corruption presented, along with the coinciding momentum of the trailblazing mass media, “The entire nation was following along. The entire nation was outraged that the Department of Justice was being run like a criminal organization for the personal benefit of the attorney general,” Masters said.

Without a group of Bernie Sanders-esque senators, as Masters describes, investigations into the matters wouldn’t have been possible and the scandal wouldn’t have been exposed to the level that it did, which had implications for the succeeding Coolidge administration. “[The senators] were able to control the Senate, they were able to get their preferred chairman elected to the Interstate Commerce Committee, they were able to launch this investigation into the attorney general that wasn't just a show hearing,” Masters described.

Apart from demonstrating courage in politics, the story, as Scheer and Masters point out, signifies a more innocent period in American history, one where politicians could impose meaningful change and take on powerful interests, despite threats to their freedom and life. “There is a certain innocence in Wheeler and in thinking that he can take on these entrenched powers: the railroads, the mining companies, the attorney general who's the mastermind behind the Harding administration. And yet he did it.”



Joshua Scheer